Despite being written from a female perspective for other female backpackers,
this stuff easily applies to all you handsome guys out there!
Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.
It’s so unsafe to travel as a girl!
Aren't you freaked out taking off by yourself?
I’m way too scared to travel solo.
My family / boyfriend / husband loves me too much to let me travel alone.
That last one made me laugh. I've heard it all. And yes, I do feel vulnerable travelling solo at times. A lot of times, actually. The week before I leave, terrible scenarios play out in my head like bad teen horror flicks. To this day, when I say goodbye to my family, I feel myself bracing as though it’s the last time I’ll ever see them. That feeling would be crippling if I allowed it to be.
Fear is normal and inherently human; its instinctive bite protects us by keeping our behaviour in check, among other uses. I personally subscribe to a belief that lands somewhere between a dispassionate When it's your time, it's your time and a passionate Fuck it, you only live once. But there is no substitute for common sense and pragmatism. Us ladies can do pretty much anything that men can do, although we can be proactive to ensure greater safety when travelling alone.
You boys aren't off the hook, though. There are plenty of attacks, and you’re an obvious target if you’re plastered. In Krakow, two guys were mugged near my hostel. Unlucky, and unfortunately inebriated, they got jumped - one of them got a knife between the ribs and a 2-night stay in the hospital - and their passports got stolen. What a miserable experience: stuck in a country they no longer wanted to see, unable to leave without passports. It was one of the few times I’ve seen a grown man weep for his mum.
Personally, I felt as safe as ever backpacking Southeast Asia alone for two months, despite having been roofied in Thailand. On Night # 1, and only on Drink # 2. All the usual precautions had been taken: I held my glass by its top rim so that my hand covered my drink, and I finished it before heading to the bathroom (so as not to leave it unattended). But when the bartender spikes your drink, the safety drill is over before it starts. I’ll be forever grateful to my two male hostel mates, who mistrusted my sudden wooziness and half-carried me through the streets, back to my room. Sometimes, you must simply trust strangers; without them, my night could have had a different ending.
Precautions should be taken in conservative or religious countries. My month in Morocco got hairy more often than I care to recall, though I’m not sure my male companion and I were ever in real physical danger. In the fantastically ancient bazaars of Marrakesh, we were followed and threatened with beatings when we wouldn’t hire the cons posing as guides. A few men blocked my exit from their store for about 30 minutes; they only allowed me to leave once I flirted and convinced them that my ‘husband’ handled all my money. (I remember thinking, Smile, bat your eyelashes and stick your boobs out. The only thing more pathetic than my performance is that it worked). A few times, we were menaced after walking by certain restaurants and not sitting down to eat. Despite being carefully covered up, my ass/boobs were grabbed twice. A female police officer approached me on the street, claiming that the guys who were (apparently) following me had ‘poor intentions’. I didn’t allow her to escort me to my hotel, for fear of still being watched, so I went to a nearby café. (Those moments did NOT manage to taint my memories of Morocco, what with all the welcoming and kind locals that we met.
OK, I might be freaking you out. (Sorry, mom and dad!) Let’s do the maths game. In my accumulated 3+ years of travels, I've felt safe 99% of the time, both alone and in the company of others. And how much of the 1% consisted of falsely-perceived threats, or an overactive imagination? There’s no way to know, especially when everything turned out fine. The most bone-chilling, frightful situation in which I’ve found myself? After suppertime, stone-cold sober, in über-organised, ‘’ultra-safe’' Germany. Go fucking figure.
So, how can one’s welfare be guaranteed? It can’t, darling. You can hardly safeguard it in your hometown. Generally speaking, caution practised at home is caution required overseas. And barricading yourself in your house apparently isn’t good for you. So go out there and take a chance on the world. If you're proactive about it, you can place a whole lotta safety in your own hands.
Before You Go
* Do your homework. Research your destination; Google it, watch travel videos on YouTube, read blogs, buy a guidebook. This stuff is fun, but it’ll also go a long way toward settling your nerves. Plus, it’ll get you excited and remind you why you chose your destination in the first place.
* Figure out travel and health insurance. Know what you are and aren’t covered for. Bring a photocopy of your policy with you and send a hard copy to your emergency contact (do the same with your passport and all bank cards, too). I wasn’t covered for skydiving but went anyway, and if my parachute hadn’t opened, my parents would have had to remortgage their house to repatriate my body. (Oops). Don’t be a dumbass; travel insurance is massively important.
* Visit your country’s government advisory about travelling to your destination. Take any yellow or red flags seriously.
* Get the proper immunisation or medications - I’m talking yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, hepatitis, traveller’s diarrhea, etc. Visit your destination’s government website to know what you need.
* Print out your allergies or dietary intolerances on little cards in different languages, to show restaurant employees and food vendors. Avoid any emergencies by visiting Allergytranslation.com or selectwisely.com.
* Leave room in your schedule for spontaneity. Don’t beeline it to the predictable, touristy spots out of insecurity or fear. Don’t forget, the pickpockets target the touristy places. Anxiety can make us over-plan everything. Stuff could go wrong anywhere ; learn to accept it and trust that you’ll go with the flow if shit ever hits the fan.
Getting From A to B
* In some countries, dropping more coin for daytime travel (rather than riding the cheaper trains or buses at night) is a smart move. Familiarise yourself with the transit systems before using them.
* If you know you’ll be hopping into a taxi/ Über, insist on keeping your bags in the backseat with you, not in the trunk or boot of the vehicle.
* Carry a business card from your hostel/hotel (or at least its name and phone written in the local language). You might need it to flash to drivers if you can’t find your way back or if you get stuck in a sudden downpour.
* When arriving in a new city, know where you're headed and how to get there. Sniff out your route online beforehand (ex: GoogleMap how to get from the train station/airport to your lodgings), then take a screenshot of the route. If taking a cab/Uber, show it to the driver to let them know that A) you know where you’re going and B) you know how to get there. Looking as though you know where you’re going (even if you don’t) can save you trouble if your driver gets payouts to bring unsuspecting clients to sponsored hotels (common in India and certain Asian countries). It can also save you money by NOT being driven all over the city while the metre ticks on. A few Vietnamese drivers refused to bring me to my hostel when I showed them my screenshot of the route; they couldn’t be bothered to help me without the opportunity to rip me off. The bastards.
* No hitchhiking. (Except m-a-y-b-e in New Zealand. New Zealand rocks. But I still don’t condone hitching rides.) And don’t pick up people off the street if you’re alone in your rental vehicle. Or if it’s nighttime. These are no-brainers.
* Befriending other girls can go a long way toward providing real security. Safety in numbers is a legit thing. So don’t be afraid to get comfy in your hostel’s social room - start chatting with other travellers. Learn people’s names, smile, look into their eyes, make a connection. Don’t underestimate its worth!
* Don't tell strangers (locals, random 'backpackers' not staying in your hostel, merchants) that you're travelling solo or where you're staying; your new lodgings are your new home. I've pretended to be waiting for a (fictitious) boyfriend to arrive, and I’ve even given weirdos in my hometown a fake name/workplace. Overkill? Maybe; perhaps they were just flirting, perhaps they were up to no good. There’s no way to really know.
* For fuck’s sake girls, I can't say it enough because I see it all the time : Quit getting sloshed in clubs and trusting strangers. That includes that cute guy you just met at the bar or that friendly taxi driver. Join your hostel’s organised pub crawls, make friends with other participants and once you’re all out there having fun, don’t leave any soldiers behind.
I Gotta Feeling ...
* You'll learn to trust your gut instincts, then to act on them. I think women are particularly sensitive to our gut feelings, probably because we’re so used to rummaging through the mess of stuff we feel on a minute-to-minute basis. You hear a voice in your head or you have a sinking sensation in your tummy? That means something! Even if you feel like you’re exaggerating or you need to be a bit rude, do whatever you can to change or elevate your situation. You’ll learn the art of saying « no » quickly and convincingly. You'll learn to put your bitch face on. You'll allow these opportunities to grow yourself a new set of balls. This is a good thing, girls!
A Few Last Suggestions
* Deliberately choose hostels with higher safety and location ratings, as well as women-only dorms. These hostels can be more expensive, but there’s a reason for that higher price tag, peeps.
* Most travellers get their bags riffed during transfers, especially on buses or trains. Stowing your bag over your head on the shelf or under your seat makes it an easy target for thieves to grab it on the way out, or to rifle through it without being detected. By all means, stash your large backpack in the compartment under the bus (stay with it until the driver closes the door; don’t leave it in a pile on the sidewalk for the driver to place it later). Once inside the bus, keep your smaller bag on your lap or on the floor in front of you, but loop your legs through the straps and keep it in your line of vision. Sounds paranoid, but this is literally the time where you stand to lose your bag the most.
* Add important numbers to your contacts (insurance/bank emergency numbers, local police, your government’s local consulate office, etc.).
* Keep your pricey technology inside scuffed-up cases to make them look less attractive to thieves. In poorer countries, it would be downright obnoxious to flash that stuff around. Keep your expensive jewellery at home.
* Lock valuables, extra cash and extra cards in your locker or room safe; take only what you need for the day. Keep your wallet on you and never put your phone in your back pocket or outer pockets of your day bag.
* Establish a routine. Go to the same coffee shop every morning, the same fruit market stalls… People will start recognizing your face and conversations will be easier to maintain.
* Wearing a fake wedding ring can make all the difference in certain conservative countries; that plastic rock helped get some very-much-unwanted attention off me. Unfortunately, it was then largely deflected onto my travel partner and ‘husband’, who was determined to be the one responsible for our money and for authority over his ‘wife’. (Disclaimer : I will always respect traditional cultures that have a high regard for matrimony. But as a woman, it bites when putting on a cheap plastic ring suddenly elevates your level of safety or personal worth.)
* Ditto with a headscarf. Again, I’m not getting political here; it’s about safety. If you feel safer wearing a headscarf, do it appropriately and respectfully (you can always wear it à la Marilyn Monroe). It’s not cultural appropriation if it ensures your well-being.
Anything and everything that can happen to a woman in a foreign country can also happen --and has happened-- in her home country. Travel is simply a change in one’s geographical status. I don’t think the world is a scarier place for women to travel; the world is a scarier place for women. Period.
So is this advice fool-proof? Of course not.
Do I make errors in judgement? Pfft. Obviously.
But to quote one of the few chick flicks I like: You can't leave everything to fate, she's got a lot to do. Sometimes, you must give her a hand.
Happy (and safe!) travels, my friend.
Link to Photo Collections
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The Arrival Thing